By Ellen Kozak
It is likely that the Hudson River, which runs the length of the state of New York, will be at the doorstep of my studio within the next couple of decades. This is my twentieth-year painting along the river’s edge in the town of New Baltimore. Direct observation is the core of my painting practice. I work on site with a field easel. My process, and the circumstance of having a subject in constant motion, influenced my return to work in video. In 2008, I received a commission for a single-channel video from the Katonah Museum of Art.
Bodies of water and their physical properties, atmospheric conditions, and natural phenomena are mesmerizing sources of inspiration. I work with these elements in a responsive and experimental way, pairing ephemeral luminosity with tidal motifs, and natural phenomena with man-made disturbance. As I paint, use my camera, swim, kayak, and live with the presence of the Hudson throughout the seasons, the river starts to feel like a close companion.
The river is a living organism. While it is resilient, its fragility is once again being challenged. As many know, the Hudson suffered extreme abuse over many decades, notably from the multinational company General Electric’s dumping of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Like any injured organism, it requires care and respect for the systems that support its life and health.
In my own work, I strive to depict the river’s supple and subtle shifts in color, luminosity, and transparency. Its surface may appear smooth or disturbed. Entering the sphere of my interest are aspects of optical phenomena such as after-image, conjured by intensely bright light reflected from the river’s surface.
As a painter also working with video, my practice brings together concepts and crafts from both media. Dialogue between these forms raises new ideas and possibilities. My approach is empirically responsive and quotidian in exploring conditions, natural or manmade. One imperative in my dual practice is close study through which sensations can be intoxicating and intense. Abstract in appearance, my work conveys the movement and luminosity of rivers without offering views or realistic representation. Yet, while painting, I feel sure that I am reporting a precise account of the landscape.
I am attracted to bodies of water for their perceptual properties as well. Their mirror-like surfaces are an interesting way to indirectly observe the world through reflection. This can create collisions and magnify attributes by imposing distance, both perceptual and psychological. Mediated observation can suggest metaphor and render what is known equivocal.
I use the surface of the river as a giant watery lens that absorbs reflections, colors, and patterns. It collects activity from the sky above – the movements of clouds, fog, foliage, planes in flight – and on the Hudson, tankers transporting crude oil and barges carrying “restricted use soil” from Newtown Creek as fill beside tributaries of the Hudson. This is a violation that reintroduces contaminant into the environment. Last year, one loaded barge containing this restricted use soil sank and no notice of violation was issued by the DEC. The re-industrialization of the river is evident and problematic.
My interest in water and attendant attributes, such as the repetitive motion of waves, is longstanding. In graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I experimented with one of Nam June Paik’s wacky video synthesizers. From oscillators, the contraption generated images based on electronic waveforms. Analog technology, more physical than digital, revealed the inner workings of monitors, tubes, and electron guns spewing streams of electrons. Now, working beside shorelines, the watery surface of the river provides a different kind of synthesizer – organic and embedded in the landscape.
Oil paint shares an aqueous attribute with my subject, but each has different viscosities. In recent years, I have been approaching paint as a mimetic medium; I use its physicality to perform in ways similar to my subject.
Spending so much time along the shoreline lets me experience the Hudson as a commercial waterway and see the consequences of superstorms such as the flooding of whole neighborhoods, the ripping away of staircases, and large appliances including cars being carried downriver. The clear evidence and certainty of sea level rise is inescapable.
Some sightings of note include entrapped ships waiting for a rising tide to lift them from where they have run aground; barges transporting enormous turquoise struts – bridge parts for the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge (now renamed the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge) that crosses the river from Grand View-on-Hudson to Tarrytown; the annual assembly of a pumping station, across from my studio, to carry dredging spoils from a large swath of the riverbed to the top of Houghtaling Island, where they reenter the ecosystem; and the ongoing illegal rezoning of wetlands.
Many people are surprised to learn that most of the Hudson is actually a tidal estuary extending from the mouth of New York Harbor to the Federal Dam in Troy, approximately 153 miles north. The tidal zone in New Baltimore is surprisingly deep, about twelve feet. While painting, if I don’t want to get caught by the tide, I have to constantly back up from the shoreline.
All of these years working directly beside the Hudson inspired me to find a way to become an advocate for it. My awareness and concern, while not expressed directly in my artistic work, offered me a path to seek involvement. In joining the membership of the environmental organization Riverkeeper, I signed on to their mission “to protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries and safeguard the drinking water of nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents.” More recently, as a board member, my practice of working on site has been a useful and practical kind of monitoring and surveillance in and around our river.
One look at the environmental issues, the campaigns, and cases that Riverkeeper is tackling daily gives me hope. This short film about the Gowanus Canal reveals just one of Riverkeeper’s ongoing efforts and its hard work.
Recently, I have noticed an inverse relationship between my paintings and video. In the former, I collapse hours of observation onto the still surface of a painting, while in the latter, I use still imagery to refer to time and imply constant motion. Subverting expected characteristics of each medium creates unexpected paradoxical disjunctions.
(Top image: riverthatflowsbothways, 2016, four-channel video installation, Ellen Kozak & Scott D. Miller)
Ellen Kozak is a painter and video artist whose work brings together concepts and crafts from both media. She lives and works in New Baltimore, NY and in New York City. A Professor at Pratt Institute for twenty-three years, she received degrees from MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the Massachusetts College of Art. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Fogg Museum among others. Seventeen solo exhibitions of her work have been mounted in the US, Japan and France, and her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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